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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the Eighth GOP Debate

The candidates made false and misleading claims in the Manchester meeting.


Days before the New Hampshire primary, the top seven Republican presidential candidates stretched some facts in the eighth GOP debate.

  • Sen. Ted Cruz incorrectly claimed that waterboarding doesn’t meet the “generally recognized” definition of torture. The definition he gave reflects a controversial 2002 Bush administration memo.
  • Businessman Donald Trump claimed that his campaign couldn’t get tickets to the debate and that the RNC told him there were “all donors in the audience.” The RNC told us each candidate received an equal allotment of tickets.
  • Cruz said his Iowa staffers spread misinformation about Ben Carson suspending his campaign based on CNN’s reporting, claiming CNN “didn’t correct” its story for nearly three hours. That’s false. CNN only reported that Carson wasn’t heading directly to New Hampshire after the Iowa caucus.
  • New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said that Sen. Marco Rubio was incorrect in claiming that New Jersey’s credit rating had been downgraded nine times under Christie. The state’s debt rating has been lowered nine times all told by three different rating agencies.
  • In referring to terrorists, Rubio claimed that “we’re not interrogating anybody right now.” Not true. What has changed is that the administration no longer subjects terrorism suspects to indefinite interrogation at Guantanamo Bay.
  • Cruz said he would “end welfare benefits for those here illegally.” But immigrants in the U.S. illegally are already barred from receiving most government benefits, including food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
  • Rubio said Hillary Clinton “believes that all abortion should be legal, even on the due date of that unborn child.” Clinton has said she’s “open” to restrictions on late-term abortions if there are exceptions for endangerment of the life and health of the mother.
  • Christie and Ohio Gov. John Kasich argued over whether Ohio had a bigger government in terms of employees now than when Kasich took office. That depends on whether one counts state university employees.
  • And we heard claims we’ve written about before — on the Iran hostage crisis, Planned Parenthood and deportations of immigrants.


The debate, hosted by ABC News, WMUR and the news website Independent Journal Review, included seven candidates — former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and businessman Donald Trump. Two candidates, former CEO Carly Fiorina and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, didn’t place high enough in polls to make it on the stage. The debate was held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Cruz on Waterboarding and Torture

Cruz incorrectly claimed that waterboarding doesn’t meet the “generally recognized” definition of torture:

Q. Senator Cruz, is waterboarding torture?

Cruz: Well, under the definition of torture, no, it’s not. Under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems, so under the definition of torture, it is not. It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture.

Actually, the definition cited by Cruz is far from being “generally recognized” or accepted.

For example, the United Nations Convention Against Torture states: “[T]he term ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession … when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

That multilateral treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate on Oct. 27, 1990, on an unrecorded division vote. The U.S. is one of 158 nations that are parties to the convention.

The definition cited by Cruz is much narrower and quite controversial. It paraphrases the language in a 2002 memo from the Justice Department to then-President George W. Bush’s chief legal counsel, stating the opinion that under U.S. law, “Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.”

But to call that “generally recognized” is false. In fact, it has been vigorously disputed by a number of outside legal experts.

They include Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who submitted testimony to a Senate subcommittee in 2009 calling the definition “bizarre” and inaccurate.

At the same hearing, another law professor, David Luban of Georgetown University Law Center, called the definition “a selective and, in places, deeply eccentric reading of the law.”

In fact, as we have written before, a U.S. Military Commission charged three Japanese soldiers with violating the laws and customs of war during World War II for committing torture, including “water treatment.” The Japanese soldiers were accused of forcing water into the mouths and noses of U.S. prisoners. All three were convicted.

Cruz is entitled to his opinion that waterboarding isn’t torture. But he’s wrong when he claims his definition is “generally recognized.”

An All-Donor Audience?

During a heated exchange with Bush on eminent domain, Trump dismissed those who were booing him by saying his campaign could not get tickets because they were all given to donors, citing the Republican National Committee as his source. The RNC told us that that is inaccurate.

Trump: Let me talk. Quiet. A lot of times …


… that’s all of his [Bush’s] donors and special interests out there.


So — it’s what it is. That’s what — and by the way, let me just tell you, we needed tickets. You can’t get them. You know who has the tickets for the — I’m talking about, to the television audience? Donors, special interests, the people that are putting up the money.


That’s who it is. The RNC told us. We have all donors in the audience. And the reason they’re not loving me …


… the reason they’re not — excuse me. The reason they’re not loving me is, I don’t want their money.

According to the RNC, each candidate received an equal allotment of tickets for the event, which had an audience of 1,000. The largest bloc of tickets went to the host, St. Anselm College in Manchester, which received 200 tickets.

Other tickets were distributed to the state party and the debate sponsors (ABC News, WMUR and the Independent Journal Review) and Google, which sponsored the “spin room” where campaign surrogates are available to be interviewed by the media.

Only 75 RNC donors were in the audience, according to the RNC.

Cruz Blames CNN

During the debate, Cruz apologized to Carson for spreading false information on the night of the Iowa caucus that Carson was suspending his campaign. In doing so, Cruz wrongly blamed CNN for an erroneous report on Carson, and claimed CNN “didn’t correct” its story till 9:15 p.m.

In fact, CNN accurately reported that Carson was not going directly to New Hampshire but rather would stop in Florida and Washington, D.C., before going on to New Hampshire. Cruz got the timeline wrong, too.

First, a little background: Cruz was apologizing for phone calls that were made to Iowa voters on Feb. 1, the night of the Iowa caucus, informing them that Carson was suspending his campaign. Carson released an audio of the call, which said: “Hello. This is the Cruz campaign with breaking news. Dr. Ben Carson will be suspending campaigning following tonight’s caucus. Please inform any Carson caucus-goers of this news and urge them to caucus for Ted instead.”

Here’s Cruz’s version of what happened, which wrongly blames CNN for his campaign’s inaccurate assumption of what was accurately reported:

Cruz: Let me tell you the facts of what occurred for those who are interested in knowing. On Monday night, about 6:30 p.m., CNN reported that Ben was not going from Iowa to New Hampshire or South Carolina. Rather, he was, quote, “Taking a break from campaigning.”

They reported that on television, CNN’s political anchors, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash and Wolf Blitzer, said it was highly unusual and highly significant. My political team saw CNN’s report breaking news and they forwarded that news to our volunteers, it was being covered on live television.

Now, at the time, I was at the caucuses, I was getting ready to speak at the caucuses just like Ben was, just like everyone else was. I knew nothing about this. A couple hours later, I found out about it. I was told that Ben was unhappy. I called him that evening because I respect him very, very highly. I didn’t reach him that evening.

I reached him the next day and apologized. He asked me then, he said, Ted, would you make this apologize in public? I said, yes, I will. And I did so. I regret that subsequently, CNN reported on that — they didn’t correct that story until 9:15 that night. So from 6:30 p.m. to 9:15, that’s what CNN was reporting.

Subsequent to that initial report, Ben’s campaign put out a statement saying that he was not suspending his campaign. I wish that our campaign staff had forwarded that statement. They were unaware of it, I wish that they had, that’s why I apologized.

Here’s actually what happened:

On Feb. 1 at 7:43 ET (6:43 CT), CNN political reporter Chris Moody tweeted that “Carson won’t go to NH/SC, but instead will head home to Florida for some R&R. He’ll be in DC Thursday for the National Prayer Breakfast.”

A minute later, CNN’s Dana Bash reported on air that Carson was going to Florida and D.C.

Bash, Feb. 1: We should say that our Chris Moody is breaking this news, that Ben Carson is going to go back to Florida to his home regardless of how he does tonight here in Iowa. He’s going to go there for several days.

And then afterwards, he’s not going to go to South Carolina. He’s not going to go to New Hampshire. He’s going to come to Washington, D.C., and he’s going to do that because the national prayer breakfast is on Thursday.

CNN’s Jake Tapper, sitting next to Bash on the set, called it “very unusual.” Tapper and Bash tossed the show back to Blitzer in Washington, D.C., who said the report on Carson was “very significant” and thanked them for the report. Blitzer then quickly pivoted to other election news.

No one on CNN — Moody, Bash, Tapper or Blitzer — said Carson was suspending his campaign.

In fact, Moody almost immediately tweeted that Carson’s campaign would continue. The tweet — which was also stamped at 7:43 ET (6:43 CT), the same time as his first tweet — said, “Ben Carson’s campaign tells me he plans to stay in the race beyond Iowa no matter what the results are tonight.”

Also, Jason Osborne — a senior strategist for Carson — tweeted from Clive, Iowa, that Carson was “not standing down.” He tweeted that Carson “will be going to Florida to get fresh clothes b4 heading back out on the campaign trail.”

So, Cruz’s claim that CNN “didn’t correct that story until 9:15 that night” is wrong: CNN didn’t have to “correct” the story because it didn’t get it wrong, and the information that Carson would continue to campaign beyond Iowa was reported by CNN and confirmed by Carson’s top strategist long before 9:15 p.m.

CNN spokesman Matt Dornic issued a statement on Cruz’s debate claim that read, “What senator Cruz said tonight in the debate is categorically false. CNN never corrected its reporting because CNN never had anything to correct. The Cruz campaign’s actions the night of the Iowa caucuses had nothing to do with CNN’s reporting. The fact that Senator Cruz continues to knowingly mislead the voters about this is astonishing.”

Jake Tapper’s Twitter response was more succinct: “Good Lord.”

New Jersey’s Credit Downgrades 

Christie said that Rubio was giving “incorrect and incomplete information” when he claimed that New Jersey’s credit rating had been downgraded nine times under Christie. But the state’s debt rating has been lowered nine times, collectively, by three different rating agencies.

Rubio: Under Chris Christie’s governorship of New Jersey, they’ve been downgraded nine times in their credit rating. This country already has a debt problem, we don’t need to add to it by electing someone who has experience at running up and destroying the credit rating of his state. …

Christie: … You see, everybody, I want the people at home to think about this. That’s what Washington, D.C. does. The drive-by shot at the beginning with incorrect and incomplete information and then the memorized 25-second speech that is exactly what his advisers gave him.

Standard and Poor’s downgraded New Jersey’s debt rating from AA to AA- in February 2011, then from AA- to A+ in April 2014 and then A+ to A in September 2014.

Fitch Ratings made the same downgrades in August 2011, May 2014 and September 2014.

And Moody’s Investors Service adjusted its ratings for New Jersey downward from Aa2 to Aa3 in April 2011, Aa3 to A1 in May 2014 and A1 to A2 in April 2015.

Those are the nine downgrades that Rubio was talking about.

Rubio Wrong on Interrogations

Rubio wrongly claimed that when it comes to terrorists, “we’re not interrogating anybody right now.” While the administration no longer subjects terrorism suspects to indefinite interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, it still detains and interrogates terrorism suspects.

Rubio raised the issue when he was asked whether he thought waterboarding is torture.

Rubio: Well, when people talk about interrogating terrorists, they’re acting like this is some sort of law enforcement function. Law enforcement is about gathering evidence to take someone to trial, and convict them. Anti-terrorism is about finding out information to prevent a future attack so the same tactics do not apply.

… But, here’s the bigger problem with all this, we’re not interrogating anybody right now. Guantanamo’s being emptied by this president. We should be putting people into Guantanamo, not emptying it out, and we shouldn’t be releasing these killers who are rejoining the battlefield against the United States.

We wrote about this issue in detail back in January 2015 when Sen. Lindsey Graham similarly claimed the Obama administration has a policy of “not interrogating or detaining terrorist suspects anymore.”

National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told us then that it is simply inaccurate to claim the Obama administration no longer interrogates terrorism suspects.

“As a general rule, the government will always seek to elicit all the actionable intelligence and information we can from terrorist suspects taken into our custody,” Price said.

It’s true that as a matter of policy, the Obama administration has not sent any new detainees to Guantanamo. In the 2008 campaign, Obama vowed to close the controversial detention facility, claiming that it undermined national security.

In 2009, the White House created an interagency team called the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. HIG includes representatives from the FBI, CIA, State Department, Department of Defense and other agencies. When terrorism suspects are caught, the team is immediately deployed to put together an interrogation plan on a case-by-case basis. HIG also does research on the most effective methods of interrogation.

According to an Associated Press story on Oct. 8, 2013, when the U.S. wants to interrogate a suspect before reading him Miranda rights and presenting him to a court, the Obama administration is questioning terrorists aboard U.S. naval vessels. Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, told us that sometimes authorities have delayed the reading of Miranda rights for several weeks, using an expansive version of emergency exemptions.

“It’s just not true that we’re no longer interrogating or detaining terrorists,” Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University and an expert on national security law, told us in January 2015. “Each time we’ve arrested a high-value terrorism suspect overseas, they’ve been subjected to at least some sustained period of interrogation prior to their transfer to the United States for purposes of standing criminal trial.”

In an address at Harvard on Sept. 16, 2011, CIA Director John Brennan said, “In the past two years alone, we have successfully interrogated several terrorism suspects who were taken into law enforcement custody and prosecuted, including Faisal Shahzad, Najibullah Zazi, David Headley, and many others. In fact, faced with the firm but fair hand of the American justice system, some of the most hardened terrorists have agreed to cooperate with the FBI, providing valuable information about al-Qa’ida’s network, safe houses, recruitment methods, and even their plots and plans.”

Rubio may be of the opinion that terrorism suspects ought to be interrogated indefinitely at Guantanamo Bay, and he may question the administration’s policy of ultimately turning terrorism suspects over for prosecution in federal courts. But he goes too far with the claim that “we’re not interrogating anybody right now.”

Welfare for Immigrants Here Illegally?

Cruz said that if he becomes president “we will end welfare benefits for those here illegally.” But people living in the U.S. illegally are already broadly disqualified from collecting federal benefits from government programs, according to current law, with only limited exceptions.

The only exceptions for receiving federal benefits are:

  • Emergency medical care (which includes emergency labor and delivery)
  • Emergency disaster relief that is provided for the short term and is not a cash payment
  • Limited immunizations and testing, and treatment of symptoms of communicable diseases
  • Certain community programs, such as soup kitchens or crisis counseling, as specified by the Attorney General
  • Limited housing or community development assistance to those already receiving it in 1996

Some immigrants in the U.S. illegally do end up receiving benefits through bureaucratic mistakes or through deliberate fraud. But they are not legally eligible for federally funded “welfare” programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, once known as food stamps.

Clinton’s Stance on Late-Term Abortion

Rubio said Hillary Clinton “believes that all abortion should be legal, even on the due date of that unborn child.” In September Clinton said she would be “open” to restrictions on late-term abortions, but only if exceptions were carved out for cases in which the life and health of the mother are in danger.

During the debate, Rubio called the Democratic candidates for president “extremists” on the issue of abortion.

“Why doesn’t the media ask Hillary Clinton why she believes that all abortion should be legal, even on the due date of that unborn child,” Rubio said.

It is certainly true that Clinton has been a staunch defender of abortion rights. But Clinton has said she’s open to restrictions on late-term abortions, provided exceptions would be given when the health and life of the mother are an issue.

In an interview with Chuck Todd on “MTP Daily” that aired on Sept. 28, 2015, Clinton offered what is perhaps her most complete answer on her position on late-term abortions during the 2016 presidential campaign (starting at the 1:28 mark).

Todd, Sept. 28, 2015: Are there reasonable restrictions that you would ever support on abortion?

Clinton: I’ve said that there were, and that’s under Roe v. Wade, that there can be restrictions in the very end of the third trimester, but they have to take into account the life and health of the mother. I remember in ’96, Chuck, the president, my husband, vetoed a very restrictive legislation on late-term abortions, and he vetoed it at an event in the White House where we invited a lot of women who had faced this very difficult decision, that ought to be made based on their own conscience, their family, their faith, in consultation with doctors. Those stories left a searing impression on me. Women who think their pregnancy is going well, and then wake up and find some really terrible problem. Women whose life is threatened themselves if they carry their child to term, and women who are told by doctors that the child they’re carrying will not survive. And so, again, I am where I have been, which is that if there is a way to structure some kind of constitutional restrictions that take into account the life of the mother and her health, then I’m open to that. But I have yet to see the Republicans willing to actually do that, and that would be an area, where if they included health, you could see constitutional action.

Clinton offered an almost identical position during a debate when running for the Senate in 2000 .

Clinton, Oct. 8, 2000: I have said many times that I can support a ban on late-term abortions, including partial-birth abortions, so long as the health and life of the mother is protected. I’ve met women who faced this heart-wrenching decision toward the end of a pregnancy. Of course it’s a horrible procedure. No one would argue with that. But if your life is at stake, if your health is at stake, if the potential for having any more children is at stake, this must be a woman’s choice.

Ohio Government Workers 

Christie and Kasich traded barbs over the number of state employees in Ohio, with Christie claiming that “John has a bigger government now and more employees than he had when he walked in the door.” Kasich responded: “We have the lowest number of state employees in 30 years.”

Who’s right depends on what one includes as state employees.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 172,100 state government employees in Ohio in December, about 4,100 more than when Kasich took office in January 2011.

According to the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, however, the number of state employees dropped from 55,442 in 2011 to 51,806 in 2015. That’s 3,636 fewer employees. The 2015 total was 14 more than in 2014, which was, as Kasich said, the fewest number of state employees in 30 years.

What gives?

As a spokesman for the Kasich campaign explained, the Bureau of Labor Statistics includes higher education and university medical center employees in its statistics. They may technically be state employees, but the governor does not control how many people those institutions employ. And so it’s a stretch for Christie to say Ohio has a “bigger government” because there are university employees at state schools.

Deja Vu

As is the case in politics, old claims were repeated:

  • Cruz again credited President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy for the release of U.S. hostages by Iran on the day Reagan was inaugurated in 1981. “The second avenue of change is foreign policy, and foreign policy can change the fastest,” Cruz said. “It’s worth remembering that Iran released our hostages the day Reagan was sworn in.” We interviewed several experts on the Iran hostage crisis, and they told us the hostages were released that day as a final insult to President Jimmy Carter.
    For instance, the CIA station chief at the time, Tom Ahern, who was held hostage, told us that one of his tormentors “told me that we were not going to get out as long as Carter was president,” a statement that reflected hatred for Carter. “I never heard anybody talk about fear of Reagan,” Ahern said.
    Experts cited other reasons for the release: Iran’s need to focus on a war with Iraq, the hostage-takers having achieved their goal of smearing political opponents, fear of having to restart the negotiation process, and being tired of holding the hostages (the crisis lasted 444 days).
  • Christie suggested Planned Parenthood made a profit off the sale of fetal tissue for research, but there’s no evidence of that so far. Christie said Planned Parenthood “engages in the systematic murder of children in the womb, in order to maximize the value of their body parts for sale on the open market.” The sale of fetal tissue for research purposes was the focus of secretly recorded videos by an anti-abortion group. Several politicians have claimed Planned Parenthood was profiting from the practice, but four experts in the field of human tissue procurement told us the dollar amounts discussed in one of the videos ($30 to $100 per patient) would be a reasonable fee to reimburse costs associated with handling and transporting tissue. In January, a Texas grand jury investigating the matter cleared Planned Parenthood and instead indicted the two people behind the undercover videos, including on a misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy human organs.
  • Cruz repeated his inflated claim that Bill Clinton “deported 12 million people” and George W. Bush “deported 10 million people” over their presidencies, respectively. Based on Department of Homeland Security figures for “removals,” which are defined as “the compulsory and confirmed movement of an inadmissible or deportable alien out of the United States based on an order of removal,” there were more than 827,100 people removed, or deported, during the fiscal years that span Clinton’s two-terms in office (FY 1993-FY 2000) and more than 2 million people during the fiscal years when Bush was in office most of the time (FY 2001-FY 2008). In order to get somewhat close to the figures Cruz mentioned, one would have to include the number of “returns” under those presidents, not just the “removals.” A return occurs when an apprehended immigrant leaves the U.S. voluntarily before being ordered to do so through a formal removal proceeding.

— by Eugene Kiely, Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley and D’Angelo Gore


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